The Year Deflategate Finally Died (Probably)

2016 was the year Deflategate finally died. We hope.

by Sean Newell
Dec 29 2016, 2:30pm

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Believe it or not, Deflategate actually began in 2015. Back then, Peyton Manning was still a football player—sort of. The peach emoji still looked like a delicious (and nutritious!) ass. Mad Max: Fury Road was playing in theaters, and not doing double-duty as a metaphor for American electoral politics.

And yet: Deflategate dominated 2016, too. It grew and metastasized from sports scandal to physics lesson to national news saga to University of New Hampshire class to interpretive portraiture session to a literal federal case, spawning motions and appeals and the very real possibility of ending up before the goddamned Supreme Court of the United States of America.

Today, now, finally, with time running out on the year, it is finally dead and buried. I think. I hope. Only with Deflategate, you never really know, because it just kept bringing it, getting more ravenous and ridiculous with each passing week, month, years—plural. It had more legs than the Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular.

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So yes, as we look back on 2016, let's remember the ... times.

First, a brief recap. Even though Deflategate largely played out in the legalese of motion briefs and affidavits, it's helpful to remember exactly what we are talking about, which is the single dumbest sports scandal in the history of sports. And scandals. And, like, physics. We are talking about the deflation levels of footballs. At no previous point in recorded human history have sports fans been so familiar with the terms "PSI" and "the ideal gas law." And all because New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady likes soft balls.

Like all tales of misery and woe, our story begins in Baltimore. As the scandal unfolded, all kinds of documents were released, including team emails. One email in particular, from Indianapolis Colts equipment manager Sean Sullivan to GM Ryan Grigson following the divisional round of the 2015 NFL playoffs, got the deflated ball, er, rolling.

On January 10, 2015, the Patriots eked out a 35-31 win over Joe Flacco and the Ravens, setting up an AFC Championship game on January 17 in Foxboro against the Colts. In the aftermath of the loss, Baltimore's special teams coach called Colts head coach Chuck Pagano to inform him of some funny business regarding the kicking balls. Somehow, they were given new balls instead of the ones they had prepared.

Then comes the good shit:

"it is well known around the league that after the Patriots gameballs are checked by the officials and brought out for game usage the ballboys for the patriots will let out some air with a ball needle because their quarterback likes a smaller ball ... it would be great if someone would be able to check the air in the game balls as the game goes on so that they don't get an illegal advantage."

This is Ground Zero of Deflategate, Oppenheimer's bomb going off in the desert. Once Grigson read this, he set in motion a torturous Rube Goldberg machine that consumed our souls. Grigson passed along the concerns of his equipment manager and the Ravens' special teams coach to Dave Gardi, the NFL's senior VP of football operations, adding what is inarguably the single most laughable sentence ever put to paper/pixels: "Thank you for being vigilant stewards of that not only for us but for the shield and overall integrity of our game."

Every time I think about that sentence, my mind gets re-blown. I imagine the giant eagle ripping out Prometheus's liver, only it's Ryan Grigson looking gravely at me saying "vigilant steward," and then exploding my skull.

The NFL, vigilant steward of integrity and shield-themed corporate logos that it is, responded that it would make its officials aware of Grigson's concerns—and that, my friends, is how we almost had a Supreme Court case about deflated footballs. Referee Walt Anderson, Jimmy McNally, John Jastremski, Tom Brady's phone, Judge Richard Berman, the Ideal Gas Law, Bill Belichick giving a press conference involving the Ideal Gas Law, pounds per square inch, Patriots fans once again putting on award-winning performances as weepy and persecuted martyrs, Ted Motherfucking Wells, a seventh grader from Massachusetts named Goodell winning a science fair by disproving the NFL's own science report, thereby vindicating Tom Brady—all of these things, and so much more, are Ryan Grigson's fault.

Ryan Grigson, the salty-ass Colts, and the salty-ass Baltimore Ravens gave the world Deflategate. Never forget that.

I'm not going to spend too much time on the Wells Report because that's technically a 2015 news item, but I will say this: it was nearly 250 pages long. By comparison, To Kill a Mockingbird was 281 pages long, and while it involved both a court case and trumped up accusations, it did not, as far as I recall, involve text messages about "The Deflator," watermelons as metaphors for footballs, which pressure gauge was used to measure the contents of an inflated urethane bladder, or preponderances of the evidence regarding all of the above.

Following the release of the Wells report on May 6, 2015, NFL commissioner-cum-Deflategate Torquemada Roger Goodell suspended Brady for four games, and New England was fined $1 million and docked both its 2016 first round draft pick, and its 2017 fourth rounder. Patriots owner Robert Kraft spinelessly accepted the team's punishment, but Brady and the NFLPA appealed the suspension. Because the NFLPA is a joke, and because the Collective Bargaining Agreement the union agreed to in 2011 provides for it, the actual appeal was held before ... Goodell. Shockingly, Goodell was unmoved by arguments undercutting his prior ruling. The suspension stood.

Until it didn't. Brady and the NFLPA took this shit to the legal system, filing for an injunction on July 29 in Minnesota federal district court. That court transferred the case to the Southern District of New York and the venerable Judge Richard Berman. Berman tried to get the two sides to agree upon some kind of settlement, but he also seemed sympathetic to Brady and the NFLPA's read of the situation. That read, by the way, was that Goodell was acting arbitrarily and just sort of making shit up as he went along—for example, by handing out a four-game suspension for equipment tampering, which under the CBA is supposed to be punished via a fine.

All of this was happening as the 2015-2016 NFL season approached, and Berman eventually vacated Brady's suspension one week before the Patriots opened the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Castrated in front of the entire watching world, Goodell and the league filed an appeal, but there was little to be done for that season. Brady played all year and led the Patriots to the AFC Championship game, a giant pimple on Goodell's porcelain face.

When your skin is perfect. Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

And now, finally, we get to 2016. Brady and Goodell faced off against each other before a three-judge panel in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals; while Berman was partial to Brady, the panel was very much on Team Rog. Berman agreed with Brady's substantive argument that Goodell was railroading him with an arbitrary punishment for which he had no notice, and basing that punishment on inferences on top of inferences on top of inferences of wrongdoing. Naturally, Goodell addressed none of that in the NFL's appeal. Instead, he made a purely procedural argument that basically went like this:

Say whatever you want, Crybaby Tom, but I'm the commissioner and the collective bargaining agreement—which you clowns signed off on—gives me the power to do this and that's what I did. I didn't overstep any bounds, and even if I did, it doesn't matter because arbitration decisions are given extreme deference by the courts, which means if anyone acted inappropriately here, it was that crazy activist Judge Berman.

Let's pause here and note that this was all going down in February and March—not only a full YEAR removed from the AFC Championship game between the Colts and Patriots that started it all, but also during what amounts to suicide season for sports fans. The Super Bowl is over, the NCAA Tournament and MLB Opening Day are still far off, and both the NHL and NBA seasons are in their dog days. Generally, the mid-winter sports experience is an uninhabitable tundra. Only here's the greatest quarterback of a generation, fighting in court with the league he plays for, being called a liar and a cheater by the commissioner. It was like the NFL stashed away one giant nut for all of us starving squirrels. I get goosebumps just thinking about. What. A. Gift.

Needless to say, sports blogs went nuts with it. Regular news outlets went nuts with it. Late night television went nuts with it. And the best cottage industry to spring up out of this, by far, was Sports Law Guy takage. These guys hustled. It was Deflategate 24/7/365. Thanks to Brady and the NFLPA, this whole stupid thing went from a behind-the-scenes management-labor arbitration issue to a matter of public record. Look at how beautiful this is:

That is an honest-to-God official court document. The calligraphic court designation. The index number. The "National Football League, Defendant-Appellant." The italics. The mundanity of "Tom Brady" instead of Thomas Edward Brady, Jr. God, I love all of it. Before I die, I want scientists to synthesize an injectable solution that approximates the euphoria I feel when looking at this document that has been filed in a federal fucking court and is searchable on WestLaw. Don't make me go online to satisfy my high! Let me flood my veins at my leisure. Or just vape it. I would vape this all day.

[Snaps out of revelry.]

Whew. OK. Back to Goodell and the NFL's argument. Once it found itself in court, the NFL asserted that Deflategate was in fact not about Brady or the Ideal Gas Law, but rather about the commissioner's power. To be fair, this is most likely correct. I'm sorry to inform New England fans that, no, the National Football League was probably not railroading its most handsome and successful player who plays on the closest thing we now have to dynasty. At least not at this point. No, the NFL's intransigence was all about avoiding a ruling, and therefore a precedent, that said no, Mr. Commissioner, you actually can't just do whatever the hell you want. It just so happened that Brady and deflated footballs were the means to this end.

The three-judge panel ruled in favor of the league in a 33-page decision detailing just how little they gave a legal shit about footballs, deflated or otherwise, and cellphones, destroyed or otherwise. When there is a CBA, and that agreement contains an established arbitration system, there is very little for a court to review:

Our role is not to determine whether Brady participated in a scheme to deflate footballs or whether the suspension imposed by the commissioner should have been for three games or five games or none at all. Nor is it our role to second-guess the arbitrator's procedural rulings.

"Our obligation is limited to determining whether the arbitration proceedings and award met the minimum legal standards established by the Labor Management Relations Act."

TFW the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is in the bag for the NFL.

On April 25, 2016 Tom Brady's suspension was reinstated. At that point, there were three (and really, only two) options available to the quarterback. Concede defeat, request a rehearing of the appeal before the entire Second Circuit (not just a three-judge panel), or take this motherfucker to Washington, D.C. and the Supreme Court.

Brady first filed for a rehearing en banc nearly a month later, on May 23. Three very long weeks later, in a very short ruling, the Second Circuit said thanks, but no thanks. Next came the best part: two days, a day and half maybe, of wondering if Deflategate—this stupid, utterly pointless scandal we spent 543 days dissecting every which way—would wind up with SCOTUS. Marbury v. Madison. Brown v. the Board of Education. Roe v. Wade. And maybe, just maybe, Brady v. the NFL. It was like being a kid on Christmas Eve, wondering if Santa would come, and if you were actually going to get that ten-speed you were hoping for.

Sadly but perhaps fittingly, Deflategate did not end with a bang, but rather with a hiss. On July 15, Brady officially announced that he would not take this all the way to the Supreme Court and that he was accepting the four-game suspension originally handed down nearly a full year earlier.

Touchdown Tommy was allowed to practice with the Patriots during training camp, and even play in preseason games. Once the actual season began, New England's starting quarterback was Jimmy Garoppolo. The Patriots went 3-1 without Brady, and when he got back on the field, he predictably went scorched Earth on the rest of the NFL, putting himself in the MVP conversation despite a) being a confirmed cheater and accepting his fate as such; b) the team losing as many games with him than without him; and c) only playing three quarters of the season.

When Deflategate is hungry for more BRAAAAAAINS. Courtroom sketch via Jane Rosenberg

There is actually something of a moral to this story, one that's simultaneously reassuring and not so much. Every single member of the NFLPA is treated exactly the same. If Tom Brady, living legend, can get hosed, anyone can get hosed. So yeah, that's the good news. The bad news is that the union representing those same players actually bargained for a scenario in which the commissioner not only determines how a player will be disciplined, but also has the power to hear the appeal to his own ruling.

So, in the country's most violent team sport, in which players sign funny-money contracts and can be cut willy-nilly, fines are seemingly handed out based on the basis of Roger Goodell's mood—and now the commissioner has a Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling stating that he can basically do whatever the hell he wants because the NFLPA agreed to it.

If anyone stood a chance at overcoming a deck this stacked, it was Brady, who has money, resources, fame, and clout. In the end, however, the federal judiciary was—to borrow a phrase from Ryan Grigson—a vigilant steward of the shield.

Of course, things didn't quite work out the way Grigson had hoped way back in January of 2015.

The Patriots beat the Colts in the 2015 AFC Championship 45-7, en route to a victory in Super Bowl XLIX.

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